Notes on Printing

Usually, printing does not receive as much attention as the other arts: I can well relate to exhibitions in which people tend to skip prints to focus on paintings. Somehow, there is an uncomfortable bias on the being lower-quality versions of oil or tempera painting: they can be reproduced, while a canvas is unique and cannot be mechanically copied. Although this is true, we should not credit such considerations as valid to assess the value of an image. Printing is indeed a complex technique, featuring several sub-branches, each of them characterised by a codified and precise process to be followed. Moreover, most of the time prints were realised by a group of people rather than the artist alone; part of the difficulty is indeed given by the coordination that is necessary throughout the production, the design being just the start.


Detail from A. Durer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut

Woodcut is an excellent example. It is a technique of relief printing in which the mould is carved out of a block of wood. In this process, different people are employed and the initial design may vary consistently throughout the production. First, a designer draws directly onto the block the desired composition. Then, another person cuts the block through a knife. Throughout the Renaissance, the laws established by guilds did not allow the artist to cut his own blocks: the blockcutters only could execute this work and they were gathered into a specific guild protecting their interests of professional workers. Obviously, given the difference between drawing and carving, the transition between the designer and the blockcutter could radically change the final outcome.

Further complications could occur. By the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, a new technique developed in Germany: chiaroscuro woodcut. It consists of the use of more blocks, each of them inked in a different tone of the same colour. Their impressions, printed on the same page, would create an image with more complex tonal passages than a normal woodcut print. However, the degree of complexity increases. First of all, the blocks should be carefully arranged one after the other: being the final image made up of three different impressions, if one does not properly match the others the whole creation is compromised. Furthermore, if any of the blocks gets damaged or lost, it is not possible to reproduce the print anymore.


Portrait of Hans Paumgartner, Hans Burgkmair, 1512, chiaroscuro woodcut

In this portrait of Hans Paumgartner, a counselor of Emperor Maximilian, different shades of red have been arranged so as to create effects of light and shadow. In this way, the man’s face is enlivened and the garment shows the complexity of fur textures. Burgkmair was the first artist to use this technique in 1508 and the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder was so envious of this pioneering discovery that he pretended to have himself created prints in the same way already in 1504.

However, the variety of printing methods is much wider than the mere forms of woodcut: intaglio print was indeed the second main category and it was based on the opposite principle. While in woodcut the ink is put on the relief area, intaglio print was based on the incision produced on the plate, in this case a metal one (iron first, later copper). Engraving, etching and drypoint are all ways of producing intaglio prints. In engraving, the artist creates incisions on the plate through a burin; it is a painstaking work which requires steady hands and full control over the pressure exercised on the metal. In etching, the process gets closer to drawing: the plate is covered by ground or wax and the artist scratches it away with a needle in the areas where he wants the ink to deposit. Then, the plate undergoes an acid bath (mordant) which creates incisions onto the uncovered areas; at this point, the plate can be used for printing. Drypoint is similar, as it employs a sharp instrument such as a needle, but this is applied directly on the plate, scratching it and thus creating incisions.

Digital Photo File Name:DP321350.tif Online Publications Edited By Michelle Ma for TOAH 10_27_15

   The Three Crosses, Rembrandt, 1653, etching and drypoint

It might be tempting to think that prints require a minor effort due to their reproducibility. Indeed, an engraving can be reproduced up to two hundred times before the mould gets damaged, and woodcut blocks are virtually eternal. However, the respective techniques are extremely specific and require a notable level of mastery. Even though artists such as Durer of Rembrandt practised both painting and printing, it is not possible to say that the two are the same form of art: notably in printing, the design produced by the artist by his own hand does not necessarily match the final result.


Adam and Eve
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


The Three Crosses


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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